Season 1
From the Travel Journal: They Will Never Take Our… Irn-Bru?

The most fiercely independent thing about the firecely independent Scots is… their soda?

by DOMINIQUE FERRARI

This week on Passport, we sat down with a Scotsman ironically named John English, to bust some myths people have about Highlanders. But along the way, there was one myth that pretty much got confirmed over and over again. Scots like to do things their way. While 85% of Braveheart is, sadly, not accurate — the idea that Scottish folk are fiercely independent is dead on.

But hey, lots of countries and people like independence, right? Like, maybe, all of them? That feels like a fairly human trait. So that independent spirit itself isn’t unique to Scotland. But still, there was something to it. Something just a little bit different about Scotland. And finally, we found it. The one thing — one very specific thing — upon which Scotland literally stands alone. 

Let’s get right into it.

INTRODUCTION – THEY’LL NEVER TAKE OUR…

That is a map of the number one soft drinks by country in the world. ?

See all that red? That’s Coca-Cola, the uncontested champion of the world. Well, almost uncontested. See that little tiny blue speck on top of the UK? That’s Scotland. And in Scotland, they like their soft drinks a little more… well, hard. Like, iron, in fact.

The #1 soft drink in Scotland is something called Irn-Bru. It’s bright orange (confirming another myth about Scotland loving all things ginger). It’s so sugary it’ll keep dentists in business for decades to come (though not sugary enough for some folks who nearly started a riot over it, more on that later). And it’s supposedly the best cure for a hangover since not drinking (we’ll get confirmation on that tomorrow morning).

This is the story of Irn-Bru and why this plucky, kind of awesome soft drink has managed to maintain such a hold on this plucky, kind of awesome people despite all the pressure from #BigSoda to go red like the rest of the entire planet Earth. 

PART I — LET THEM EAT RUST!

Irn-Bru began its life as Iron Brew sometime in the late 1890s. The date is a bit fuzzy – turns out, a lot of people were making something called “Iron Brew” in those days. But we know for sure that by 1901, father and son duo Robert and Andrew Grieg (A.G.) Barr had a trademark and were officially in business making THE one and only Iron Brew. Fizzy drinks were all the rage at the turn of the century and were commonly thought to be elixirs for all sorts of ailments. 

Back then, soda was viewed as a health drink. Enter A.G. Barr and father to up the ante. Iron Brew boasted (and still does!) ingredients like: 

  • Caffeine – makes you a happier person
  • Ammonium Ferric Citrate – gives it that nice rust kick
  • Quinine – a drug used to treat malaria (except in Australia, which, curious)
  • Sunset Yellow, Ponceau 4R – two pretty / pretty controversial food colorings
  • 10.3g of sugar / 100 milliliters (that’s a ½ cup in the US)

Of course, almost nobody knows the full recipe. Reportedly, there are only 3 people on Earth who do: Former company chairman Robin Barr, his daughter Julie Barr, and one other A.G. Barr board director, whose identity remains confidential. It’s reported that the three of them are never allowed to fly together on the same plane.

Right from the beginning at the top of the 1900s, people loved Iron Brew and the company took off. Sales were strong until WW2 when all production was halted due to the war. But when the war finally ended, Iron Brew would be no more. Well, the drink itself would continue, but the name would have to go. 

Due to a new, pesky law in the UK – something about “transparency” and “you can’t claim to be something that you aren’t right in your name,” Iron Brew was deemed a lie.  Now, there is actual iron in Iron Brew, as we’ve established. But it was the “brew” part that caught them up, as you obviously don’t brew soft drinks. So A.G. Barr decided to embrace the “bru,” and they went ahead and shortened Iron to Irn while they were at it. They applied for the new trademark in 1946 and by 1948, the newly labelled Irn-Bru was born and flying off shelves.

And it’s during this period where Irn-Bru became more than just another soft drink among many and became the THE quintessential Scottish drink – something Scots today refer to simply as “The Bru”.

PART 2 – MADE FROM GIRDERS, GETS YOU THROUGH

National drinks are a funny thing. Sometimes they’re obvious and wonderful. Japan has Sake. Portugal has port. Mexico has tequila. France has champagne and wine. Greece has something called tepid poison… or, sorry, the technical pronunciation is Ouzo.

In Scotland, Irn-Bru is the ginger-colored drink that’s part soda, part national identity. While whiskey technically is the national drink, many Scots will tell you that whiskey is mostly for exporting. You’re welcome. Irn-Bru is the real Scottish national drink.

There is Irn-Bru art, Irn-Bru race cars, Irn-Bru needlepoint, Irn-Bru earrings, Irn-Bru ice cream, and Irn-Bru slippers. There are also Irn-Bru kilts because they have their own official Irn-Bru tartan with The Scottish Register of Tartans. Irn-Bru has even been known to be used in wedding toasts. Twenty cans of Irn-Bru are sold every second so that by the time you’ve finished this blog, almost 11,000 cans will have been guzzled. 

There are numerous reasons why Scots came to adore the Bru. First, given its ingredients, it was basically a beta version of Red Bull. Second, it was renowned for being a hangover cure (almost done with this tequila… the things we do for research at Passport). And third, there was a not too shabby 20 pence return deposit on the bottles (about 25 cents USD). But perhaps above all of that, it was the advertisements (adverts in UK). When it came to making Irn-Bru truly part of Scottish identity – it was all about the ads. 

This article over at Scotsman Food and Drink goes through some of the best ads over the decades.

There are kids eating iron rivets, which yielded one of Irn-Bru’s most popular slogans: Made from girders, gets you through. Another with a grandma robbing a convenience store on her motorized scooter. There was the “Cheer up, Goth” campaign. And perhaps one of their most popular ads of all time, a parody on “The Snowman” which featured tons of Scottish landmarks, including an appearance by Nessie. 

These ads intertwined the identity of Irn-Bru with the classic idea of the Scottish personality; a little rough around the edges, tough as nails (or iron rivets, as it were), irreverent, ginger-colored, and funny as hell. And that identity, it turns out, was the most key ingredient for Irn-Bru of them all.

It’s summed up perfectly in this infographic by Glaswegian David McSweeney, who runs online media site Favrify.

These days, Irn-Bru is almost universally beloved in Scotland. It’s seen as a drink by the Scots and only for the Scots (to be fair, nobody else is asking). Except, Scotland isn’t just for the Scots, is it? It’s part of the UK. That’s how it ended up with the name Irn-Bru in the first place – UK Law. And so, sometimes Scotland gets dragged along into laws and wars (and Brexits) that it doesn’t want to. Which brings us to…

It was Friday April 6th, 2018, a date which shall live in infamy. That was the date that a new, major British sugar tax went into effect. Now, foods and drinks would be heavily taxed for the sugar they contained. A.G. Barr was against the ropes. With 10.3 grams of sugar per ½ cup of Irn-Bru, this tax was going to be rough. And so A.G. Barr announced something they never wanted to: they were going to cut the amount of sugar in Irn-Bru from 10.3g to 4.7g per 100 milliliter by January of 2019.

This was not good. The path is littered with the ghosts of sodas past that tried to cut their sugar content. Coke Zero. New Coke. Crystal Pepsi. Their sugar-free corpses fester in the recesses of our nightmares and live on only in Jeopardy or QI questions.

The reaction was swift. There was a near riot and rush on stores when word got out that the secret formula for Irn-Bru was changing due to this UK codswallop. In a precursor to the great toilet paper pandemic run of 2020, there was a full blown run on Irn-Bru. Stores were selling out as people stocked up on the original stuff. Eventually people were selling bottles for £250. (Just over $300 USD.) And one man even presented his bride-to-be with a wedding gift of a crate of original recipe Irn-Bru.

But A.G. Barr followed through with it. Since January of 2019, the Irn-Bru that decks the shelves in Scotland has about half the sugar of the original. And people are not happy about it. Sales reportedly went down somewhere between 10%-20% in the year following “the change”.

For a company and a people that pride themselves on being tougher and taking more risks than everyone else, this one hurt. And so, they were defeated. The end.

NO.

Of course not. Because as we all know, Scotland will never accept defeat.

By October of 2019, A.G. Barr had announced that they were releasing Irn-Bru 1901 which has even MORE sugar than the axed original. Take that, UK! Because when life hands you lemons, you make Quinine and put it in soda.

UPDATE:

Ok, taste and hangover theory testing completed. Results are… mixed. On taste, Irn-Bru is a mix of bubble gum and cream soda. The fact that this is Irn-Bru with LESS sugar (I refrained from the 1901 variation) is hard to fathom. It’s SWEET. On the hangover front, it’s hard to argue that mainlining sugar takes some of the bad feels away after a night of hard drinking (aka moderate drinking because I have two wee ones and it’s all I can do). But I’ll give it this: It’s cold, bubble gummy fizziness put a little pep in my step.

Ok, back to binging Outlander now.

 

Image Credits:
Banner image: Skye, United Kingdom by v2osk on Unsplash
Eileen Donan Castle, by George Hiles on Unsplash
Most Popular Sodamaker by Country Infographic via Twitter
When an Englishman Drinks Irn-Bru by David McSweeny via Favrify.

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.